In contemporary music, rhythm is very important. In fact, contemporary music relies heavily on rhythm for its sophistication and without doubt, much of that music is very rhythmically sophisticated. I listen to songs on the radio very often that just make me shake my head. They sound easy but I know full well how hard it is to execute that kind of rhythm in a way that sounds easy.
In my opinion, the fundamental building block of contemporary rhythm is the push (its informal name) or anticipation (its formal name). It all starts with that and I want to talk about pushes for a few minutes today as we continue our series on texture.
Here is something important to know before you start. If you are going to start thinking much about rhythm, you sort of need to know that every song you play needs to fall into one of two categories: in time or out of time.
Out of time music is rubato. Much of what we consider classical music is rubato which means it is not necessarily designed to be played rhythmically perfect. The tempo slows and speeds up and breathes. Those variances in tempo make it interesting.
“In time” music is designed to be played with little or no variance in the tempo at all. You can set your watch by it; in fact, most popular music now is recorded with a “click” (metronome). And because there is no musical interest gained from variance in the tempo, musicians use more complex rhythms to introduce interest. In other words, while the position of each beat is fixed based on how many beats per minute the song is being played, musicians move around notes so that they are not being played on the beat.
In my opinion, trying to mix these two approaches is a bad idea. If you try to play complex rhythm in a rubato feel, you are usually just going to end up with a mess. Listeners cannot tell what is going on–they are likely to lose the pulse of the song. So, in general, what I am going to discuss today applies only to when you are intentionally deciding to play “in time.”
Now, let’s talk about pushes. Pushes are essentially a movement of a note forward in time by a fixed amount. For example, rather than playing a note on beat 4 of a bar, you might play it on the last part of beat 3. Here is an example of that (see bars 9 and 11).
Here is a line from a recent arrangement of “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” Note that the melody notes are lined up directly on beats as the song is traditionally heard.
Now, here is the same line later on with pushes built in (bars 33 and 35). These pushes are 16th note pushes in that I am pushing the melody note forward in time by a 16th note. Note that I am not going crazy with pushes. You can use them judiciously and get a great result. Don’t go overboard with rhythm; rather just use it sparingly mixed in with straight rhythm.
Here is another spot in the song where I use push rhythm. Again, I am pushing a 16th note.
I want to point out that the pushes are consistent in this arrangement (16th notes) and I think that is important. I always remember something a professional pianist once told me: don’t try to be too diverse in the rhythmic elements you put in any one song. Find something and stay consistent. Don’t push 16th notes in one bar and eighth notes in the next. Again, that is the kind of thing that will frustrate and confuse the listeners.